Looking back on my work, it appears it has been quite some time since I reviewed an anime! I’ve trend a lot more towards sports anime then any other genre in anime. So of course, it’s no surprise that “Hoshiai no Sora” otherwise known as “Star Align” in English ended up on my radar this season. While that isn’t surprising, the content of the series, for a sports anime is…
Before deep diving into the surprisingly elements of the series, we should talk the basic premise first. “Hoshiai no Sora”, starts with Shinjo Toma the captain of the boy’s soft tennis club, recruiting new members unsuccessfully. His team severely under performs in comparison to the girl’s team, and is threatened with disbandment by the student council. The team’s goal is to win… one match in the next formal tournament. The thing is the boy’s team hasn’t won in years!
Toma is trying to scout new talent to save the team, and ends up meeting Katsuragi Maki a transfer student he knew in his elementary school days. Maki is gifted with natural reflexes and fairly quick to pick up on things. Toma desperately recruits Maki, only for Maki to agree under one term; Toma must pay his club dues, and for equipment. With the temporary agreement in place, the stars begin to align for the team… maybe?
This particular sports anime takes the approach of underdog team gets better thanks to mystery new player. It’s tried and true and works incredibly well in this franchise. It’s made very clear from the beginning that the current members were satisfied with the status quo, and that’s what held them back. They could never be as good as the girl’s so why try? Having that hurdle broken down by an outsider like Maki, is incredibly well thought out and lays a very nice bonding point between Maki and the rest of the team.
Maki is also a very fun element in the series, although he is a bit flawed. For one, Maki plays into the very real, but fell out of favor player who functions the premise of “pay to play”. It’s an obvious statement, but since it’s fallen out of trend, I’ll briefly go over what it means in sports anime. This character is usually well known around school for being gifted at sports typically in general, but sometimes specializes in one or another. For whatever reason or another they don’t official join any clubs or teams. They’re recruited and paid by the captain or vice-captain to join a team for a brief period, usually a tournament or during an evaluation to boost the image of the team. They use to used a ton in shonen sports series, notably “Whistle!”‘s Shigeki Sato, among others.
It’s never made clear if Toma’s teammates are made aware of this deal. However, the terms of the deal and Maki’s initial motivation being purely money, allows him to function more roughly then if he was motivated by love of sport. He calls out his ‘sempai’ on the team, saying he’s made more progress in a few days then some of them have made in a year. It causes quite the uproar in the team!
That uproar though, allows Toma to regain more authority with the teammates. He takes Maki’s side and holds his teammates accountable for their lack of action. They rebuild their training schedule, and wait for the ball to drop or players to drop out. To my genuine surprise, none of them do. Instead the team in this transitional state faces their flaws in sport and in the home lives.
It’s made clear that “Hoshiai no Sora”‘s focus is not merely just on soft tennis. In fact, only a mere handful of times are there scenes with the character’s explaining rules or techniques. Usually from the manager to Kanako, allowing a bit more banter between the duo. “Hoshiai no Sora”‘s main focus is on the rather dramatic and at times downright disturbing home lives of it’s players.
While the most attention is brought in the first episodes to Maki and Toma’s circumstances; no member of the team, including Mitsue Kanako their unofficial tsundere cheerleader, escapes the realities of life. There’s drama themes of isolation, tiger/overbearing parenting, abuse, neglect are all prevalent with most characters. One of the Japan specific topics that causes quite the stir, although seen as mild in the West is the topic of adoption. As both characters Takenouchi Shingo, and Futsu Rintarou face two unique problems within the Japanese adoption process.
This element for exploring societal issues was incredibly divisive with the community as it split viewership. Viewers either liked these explorations of the realities that students face, or hated it. Many viewers grew bored with the explorations, that they took too long or took too much away from the focus of the series. The biggest statement was that voiced was that these circumstances felt forced. That “Hoshiai no Sora”‘s staff was going out of their way to try and create an edgy sports anime, and just used soft tennis to rope in the sports anime fans.
Which, I’ll admit are valid points. I don’t agree with them, but it’s valid critique. I personally got taken for a loop when around episode four that the series didn’t just focus on Maki and Toma’s familial issues, but that it was expanding into the other characters. It really felt that the dramatic elements were being piling into seemingly such a short series just to try and make “Hoshiai no Sora” different from other tennis anime.
In my own viewing experiences of sports anime, and a former athlete, “Hoshiai no Sora” might be the series that breathes life into a genre dominated by the same tried and true formulas that have dominated for decades.
Being honest, most sports anime typically work on the guide frame of a few different goals or points. Usually either underdog player/team, a team that fell from grace
(close to underdog but a little different imo), or a team that has no name for itself and the goal of making the national tournament, etc. These stories really don’t have many other routes to go, since conflict in sports series is limited to player vs. player (same or opposing teams), team vs. team. The point of a series is to get to x point, which is usually the final round of a tournament since that’s how sports get to who is number one. There’s not too many other routes to go.
Sports anime serve as escapism or inspiration for current and former players of said sport. This series has a team flawed just enough to be believable, has the same mistakes and obstacles like our own experiences, that we can project ourselves onto this team. The difference is that while our own real life time might not have been able to rank in a tournament, certainly this team will.
The characters within these typical series are given enough background to function, not much more. Character troupes exist in all genres for a reason, sports anime is no exception. Of course one of them has a messed up home life, or is too poor to buy equipment, etc. These conflicts rarely serve more then a footnote in a brief three episode arch to establish some sort of personality/characterization before moving along never to be brought up again. Being honest, most characters in most sports anime rarely have their home lives touched upon for good reason; it’s sports anime, not a drama.
Viewers aren’t interested in the character function at home, or the relationships they may have outside the team. Viewers want to see these characters grow as individuals in practice, and see their bonds strengthen with the team. That’s the focus of sports anime, that’s what has dominated how the genre works for a long time.
So “Hoshiai no Sora” really does make a point to explore the home lives it’s players. To expose their relationships from player to family, while also reconnecting the reality that, home life really does impact performance of an individual on a team. For “Hoshiai no Sora” the original team didn’t just suck because they were unmotivated. There were a lot of personal circumstances that held them back individually. I’m not surprised that it turned a lot of viewers off. Most of us are use to the brief mention format, or having it not be acknowledged at all. It doesn’t allow for the escapism or inspiration that many viewers seek when watching these series.
Given how much is carefully packed into 12 episodes, it can for sure come off as overbearing. Coupled with the note of the final episode, I understand the reviews writing it off as ‘edge lord fodder’ have cropped up. Which, is why I would like to take the time to include this translated statement from the creator:
I happened upon this statement before watching the final episode. I was actually a little pissed since it felt like a spoiler, without actually spoiling anything. Given how different my overall impression of the series is, in comparison to those who saw this statement after watching the final episode, or even those who haven’t seen it at all; I’m glad I saw this before watching. Episode 12 does really serve what would be a tipping point in a 24 episode series, it serving as an ending does come off as, again, edgy.
Upon checking the MAL page, I was also surprised to find the series is an original. There’s no manga for me to check in on and get a satisfactory ending. Which is both bittersweet in a sense, but incredibly welcoming. Original sports anime are hard to find these days. I’m also glad that Akane Kazuki didn’t compromise the series original structure and animation into 12 episodes. This series has some incredibly beautiful animation and storytelling elements, even if some of those were cut short of their full potential.
Is “Hoshiai no Sora” some new form of sports anime, and anyone who doesn’t get it is some uncultured swine? Absolutely not. “Hoshiai no Sora” has plenty of flaws with characterization being overbearing, (let’s not kid ourselves, Maki is a total Gary-Stu with a tragic backstory), some mistakes in message delivery (too much information per episode can be overbearing), and of course this initial conclusion (comes of as a cheap attempt at getting a sequel, verses this was suppose to episode 12 of 24 not 12 of 12).
I think “Hoshiai no Sora” has pushed some boundaries about what a sports anime can be. We don’t have to be trapped in endless tournament arches, super saiyan abilities and beach training camp episodes. A series can tackle the difficulties of sports and traditional how do we get good enough to get to the national tournament, while giving the players more detours in how they act outside of sports. Or, not every sport anime needs to have our beloved “ball is life” as it’s message.
I do genuinely hope that someday, “Hoshiai no Sora” gets the green light to get it’s planned ending. It pushed some new and under used ideas in to the genre, showing that sports anime can be more then just the same troupes up-cycled into a new series. It’s a series that I think truly deserves it. (Although I’m concerned that it didn’t perform, monetarily well enough to get it. Such is life). It’s a series I ended up being significantly more invested in the players, then the sport itself or just seeing yet another team have a come from behind victory. That’s something I can’t say many sports series have had me do in awhile.